Sept. 1, 2006
Chemistry will be the key this season for the UC Santa Barbara men's water polo team. Not the type of chemistry that deals with charts of elements or beakers brimming with chemical solutions. No, the chemistry these Gauchos need includes the ability to communicate through whistles and draining gutters and even through foreign accents. The chemistry these Gauchos require includes knowing who to look to on the counter attack, when the precise moment is to pass into two-meters and who will be able to slam that yellow ball into the back of the cage when it matters the most.
In 2005, the Gaucho men's water polo team began a new era. With former Olympian Wolf Wigo beginning his first year as a collegiate head coach, UCSB knew that there was potential to rise to the top, but 2005 was not going to be the year. It was a rebuilding year, pure and simple. So, in that rebuilding year, the Gauchos did what was expected of them and placed ninth place out of nine teams in the ultra-competitive Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and finished the season ranked a respectable 13th in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Top-20 Coaches' Poll.
After finishing 2005 with an overall record of 13-17, Head Coach Wolf Wigo knows that this season is going to be different.
"Coming off of last season where we didn't qualify for the MPSF tournament, that is our number one goal," Wigo said. "All eight conference games are very important for us. We would like to win at least four MPSF games. That is a big improvement from last year and all the games are going to be difficult, but I am confident that we can do that and definitely qualify for the tournament. At the end of the season we are going to be playing well and our goal will be to win that tournament."
From last place to first in one year may seem to be a bit of a pipe dream to some, but as Wigo explains it, it is possible with the right combination of returning talent, a strong recruiting class and of course that special all-important ingredient: chemistry.
"I think we have a lot of talent this year," Wigo began, "but a lot of new guys and redshirts will be key players and it is going to be how they mold together as a team and how the chemistry is that will determine how well we perform. At the beginning of the season we may lose a game or two because of miscommunication or guys being out of sync, but I really feel that once these guys get to know each other a lot better, we could be one of the top teams in the country by the end of the year."
"The recruiting class this year wasn't touted by many people as a great recruiting class, but it is. I think we got the best recruiting class in the country and some people may think I am crazy for saying that, but I think in the next year or two people will see that the new guys we have coming in this year are very talented and are going to push our team to a new level."
Returning to mind the goal for the Gauchos this season is junior Rick Wright who has two years of experience as UCSB's starting goalkeeper. In 2005, Wright led the Gauchos with 131 saves on the season, posting a 7.82 saves per game average.
"Wright is very strong at blocking the ball both on outside shots and up close. He has quickness and good reach and should be one of the leaders on the team this year," mentioned Wigo.
Also returning in the red caps for UCSB this year are redshirt freshman Michael Robinson and junior James Street. Street saw time in six games last season, posting 45 saves for a save average of 7.2 per game.
"(Robinson and Street) are both capable goalies and if Rick is off, or not having a good game, I won't hesitate to put those guys in."
Ratko Paunovic, a sophomore transfer from Loyola Marymount, is expected to make an immediate impact at the two-meter position this season. Paunovic played in 16 games, posting 8 goals and drawing 18 ejections during his freshman season with the Lions.
"He has excellent fundamentals, he is not the biggest guy, but he has great legs and is a very talented all-around player," said Wigo of Paunovic.
Dale, who did not play in 2005, scored 22 goals for the Gauchos during his sophomore campaign in 2004. Tootell, a redshirt freshman, will don the UCSB cap for the first time this season.
Four players will compete for time as the primary two-meter defender, junior Alex Young and redshirt freshman Adam Massman return for the Gauchos. Young posted eight goals last season.
Freshman Brian Bishop and Kendall Olds will also try to grab time guarding center, "Brian and Kendall are both big, strong players but they are coming in and don't have the experience so it will be sink or swim for those guys," said Wigo.
Rounding out the team will be bevy of talented drivers and outside shooters including junior Ross Sinclair who redshirted the 2005 campaign. Sinclair was the third highest scorer for UCSB in 2004 during his sophomore season, posting 30 goals on the year.
"He is going to be our main go-to-guy. He is fast, has great game sense, a good shot, good attacking on the drives. He is a dangerous player to guard. Hopefully he is going to do a lot for us this year."
Another returning face will be junior Matt Tilburg. Tilburg was tied as the second leading scorer on last year's squad, tallying 23 goals. Tilburg is described by Wigo as, "another tough player with a great outside shot."
"Miles Price is very talented, and the fastest player on the team, so we want him to get some counter attacks. He also has a great outside shot."
Other returning players include sophomores Mark Knudtsen and Travis Watts. Knudtsen will be looked to fill more of a utility roll, acting as a driver as well as posting up at two-meters. Watts, who tallied 20 goals in his freshman campaign, is expected to see an increased roll this season.
"Travis Watts last year was sort of our designated hitter. He would come in off of a time-out on the six-on-five and he did an excellent job of scoring the ball most of the time so we are trying to get him a little more playing time and get him involved the whole game not just as a designated shooter," remarked Wigo.
Rounding out the returnees is junior driver Coulson Lantz who led the team in goals last season, posting 32 total.
New to the Gaucho perimeter is Zsombor Vincze, a freshman utility player who hails from Szeged, Hungary.
"Zsombor is an excellent player, look for great things from him. I can tell from watching him in practice that his all around game is going to help us tremendously. Hopefully Zsombor can be one of the best players in college water polo."
Another import from Szeged will be Tamas Donauer. " Tamas is also an excellent player. We are hoping for some strong play and excellent outside shooting form him as well," said Wigo.
Freshman Sean Castillo is also expected to see time in his first year as a Gaucho, according to Wigo, " he has great game sense, great legs and a strong shot."
UCSB will start the 2006 season at the UC San Diego Triton Invitational. The Gauchos, who are currently ranked 10th in the CWPA Preseason Poll will face UC Santa Cruz and No.7 UC San Diego on the opening day of the tournament, Sept. 2.
The Gauchos will travel to Redlands for the Inland Empire Tournament on Sept. 9-10 before facing some of the top teams in the nation at the Nor Cal Tournament being played at Stanford the weekend of Sept. 16-17. UCSB will return home on Sept. 29 for its home opener against UC San Diego.
UCSB's conference opener will be against Pepperdine on Oct. 1 after which they will play each of the MPSF teams once during the season. The Gauchos are also slated to play in the Long Beach State Mini Tournament (Oct. 7) and the So Cal Tournament (Oct. 14-15) later in the season.
"I think that (being underestimated) will be an advantage this year. I think everyone will take us seriously, but maybe not to the level that they should," Wigo said of the competition.
"I am excited, but a little nervous also because maybe things won't mesh and maybe we will only be a little better than last year. We definitely want to be better than last year and I am confident that we will be, it's just a question of how much better and that is the real key."